Charlotte St. Patrick's Day Parade organizers say they forbid the rainbow flag in order to celebrate "Irish culture." Pictured here: Yes, it's real, live LGBT Irish people in Dublin, holding a rainbow flag before the start of Dublin Pride. Photo Credit: William Murphy, via Flickr. Licensed CC.
Charlotte St. Patrick's Day Parade organizers say they forbid the rainbow flag in order to celebrate "Irish culture." Pictured here: Yes, it's real, live LGBT Irish people in Dublin, holding a rainbow flag before the start of Dublin Pride. Photo Credit: William Murphy, via Flickr. Licensed CC.
Charlotte St. Patrick’s Day Parade organizers say they forbid the rainbow flag in order to celebrate “Irish culture.” Pictured here: Yes, it’s real, live LGBT Irish people in Dublin, holding a rainbow flag before the start of Dublin Pride.
Photo Credit: William Murphy, via Flickr. Licensed CC.

Come Saturday, Uptown Charlotte will be filled with a sea of green, as Charlotteans of all stripes come together to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day at this year’s annual parade and festival. Event-goers will be black and white, Irish and non-Irish, Americans of Irish descent, rich and poor, gay and straight.

But, though LGBT people will be present, they will also be invisible. And, that’s because the Charlotte St. Patrick’s Day Parade Foundation actively forbids the presence of rainbow flags and the mere utterance of the words “lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender” during their event.

It’s a sad reality, but the same kind of anti-LGBT prejudice that seems to go hand-in-hand with St. Patrick’s Day celebrations in New York City and Boston has a home all its own in Charlotte, too.

Exclusion a norm in U.S.

The exclusion of LGBT people from St. Patrick’s Day parades and other events is nothing new. In Boston and New York City, two of the most iconic St. Patty’s events in the world, anti-LGBT discrimination has been a decades-long “tradition” for organizers there. Irish LGBT people in Boston even sued their parade’s organizers, the Allied War Veterans Council (AWVC), in 1992 and 1993. The Irish-American Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Group of Boston, or GLIB, marched in 1993, facing, Slate says, “slurs, spit, smoke bombs and snowballs” from spectators. In 1994, the AWVC canceled the parade altogether in an effort to keep LGBT Irish-Americans out of the event.

In Charlotte, we’re lucky we’ve never faced such brazen and violent anti-LGBT discrimination. The Charlotte St. Patrick’s Day Parade Foundation has never quite so forcefully excluded LGBT marchers. In fact, the Charlotte Royals Rugby Football Club has marched for years. Charlotte Pride Band will march this year. Charlotte Pride, on whose board I sat until recently, marched last year, too.

But, LGBT Charlotteans’ inclusion in the local event has come at the cost of our basic dignity and respect. The Parade Foundation interprets its official policies as forbidding the presence of rainbow flags and organizers have in the past censored the words “lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender” from marching contingents’ biographies, delivered by emcees as groups march through Independence Square.

Put quite simply and succinctly, Charlotte’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade organizers believe in LGBT inclusion, insofar as those LGBT people who participate remain silent and invisible as it regards who they are. In practice, it’s little different from a “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” kind of policy.

Local organizer: We are inclusive

Parade Foundation board member Frank Hart doesn’t see it that way, though. I reached out to him and a fellow board member before writing this commentary. In our email correspondence, Hart distanced the Charlotte parade from what’s happened in New York and Boston and said he believes local organizers have been inclusive and fair.

“We have tried to be inclusive and frankly, we feel have done a great job of it over the years,” Hart told me.

And, he defended the exclusion of symbols like the rainbow flag.

“Regarding your flag, our parade rules, which we send out to all registered groups, clearly states that ‘No political or advocacy/cause banners are permitted in the parade’ and we felt that the flag advocated a political position,” Hart said.

It’s excluded because, Hart explained, “The mission statement of the parade is to celebrate the Irish culture and that’s what our main focus is.”

I followed up and asked Hart if he was aware that there are, indeed, LGBT Irish people and LGBT Americans of Irish descent, and if he felt the words “LGBT,” in and of themselves, somehow advocated a “political position.” I wanted to know if Hart felt like LGBT people simply weren’t part of whatever form of Irish culture his event is celebrating.

But, Hart didn’t answer, instead replying, “I feel that I have explained it as best as I could that we have no policies towards any specific groups and have shown that by our actions.”

Jim Thompson is a Massachusetts native who lived in Boston before moving to Rock Hill. In fact, Thompson was a founding board member of GLIB — the same group which sued Boston’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade in 1992. He marched with the group in Boston’s 1993 parade and he’s marched for several years in Charlotte’s event, usually with the York County chapter of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, an Irish-Catholic fraternal organization, of which he was a charter officer of the county chapter.

Thompson didn’t know about the ban on rainbow flags or LGBT identity.

“I think it’s silly,” he told me, especially noting that “you can just look at anything in the parade and see all sorts of rainbow.”

Thompson says LGBT people simply want to be included without censorship or “sanitation,” he called it.

“These are Irish LGBT people who want to participate in a community event for St. Patrick’s Day,” Thompson said. “The sanitation of it is somewhat dishonest. I don’t see why anybody would be offended by us.”

It’s clear Hart doesn’t believe the Charlotte St. Patrick’s Day Parade Foundation is discriminating. And, it’s true LGBT groups are allowed to participate — again, only if they do so at the cost of basic recognition of who they are. But, policies that prohibit community symbols like a rainbow flag and words like “lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender” are, indeed, discriminatory and prejudiced.

‘Exclusion is not an Irish thing’

Hart, like parade organizers in New York City and Boston, claim they are simply sticking up for “Irish culture.” But, across the pond, in Ireland itself, leaders say exclusion is not a cultural norm with which they are acquainted.

In 2010, it was reported that former Irish President Mary McAleese declined an invitation to be grand marshal at New York City’s 250th annual parade in 2011 precisely because of the organizers’ exclusion of LGBT people.

That was followed up in 2011 with a much stronger statement from Irish Foreign Minister Eamon Gilmore, who chastised New York City organizers in a “first-of-its-kind meeting” with prominent LGBT members of New York’s Irish community.

“What these parades are about is a celebration of Ireland and Irishness. I think they need to celebrate Ireland as it is, not as people imagine it. Equality is very much the center of who we are in our identity in Ireland,” Gilmore said. “This issue of exclusion is not Irish, let’s be clear about it. Exclusion is not an Irish thing. … I think that’s the message that needs to be driven home.”

And, let’s be clear about this: Forbidding the rainbow flag from the local parade and omitting the words “lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender” from LGBT groups’ marching contingent biographies is nothing more than an attempt to keep LGBT people silenced and invisible.

Defining the rainbow flag as a “political symbol” is, by and large, a cheap excuse for exclusion. I’d argue the flag is an iconic and widely-recognized symbol of a diverse community, united by shared experiences as LGBT people, with many ideas and beliefs and of many races, ethnicities and origins — yes, even including Irish-Americans. The flag and the words “lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender” only become “political” when concerted efforts are made to target LGBT people with invisibility and exclusion. There’s nothing “political,” per se, about treating any group of peoples equally and fairly and simply recognizing they exist.

Thompson, too, doesn’t believe the rainbow flag or LGBT people’s identities are inherently “political.” He wants the policies changed. Still, he’s a supporter of the parade and its organizers, who he said likely aren’t actively attempting to discriminate.

“I’ve always been thrilled with the organizers and the parade,” Thompson said. “It’s always a good time. Frankly, I was just surprised to hear about the rainbow flag issue and stripping of identities. I don’t think it was done with malice; it may be done just not understanding the situation.”

Thompson stands as a shining example — being gay and being Irish are not mutually exclusive. To separate one identity from the other is impossible. And, concerted efforts and policies to hide LGBT people from public discussion or simple recognition is fraught with anti-LGBT prejudice and bigotry, even if it is not actively intended.

Want to be inclusive? Prove it.

Hart and other Charlotte St. Patrick’s Day Parade Foundation organizers say they want to be inclusive. They say they want to be fair. I’m sure they honestly believe they are doing so. I’ll stand with Thompson to give them the benefit of the doubt and take them at their word, but they’ll have to prove their desire for inclusion. They can do so by dropping their silly, prejudiced policy forbidding rainbow flags and by stopping the active censorship of LGBT people’s existence. They can do so this year. And next year. And the year after that.

Then, and only then, we’ll know that Hart and other organizers truly mean what they say, as Charlotte continues on its city-wide journey toward truly becoming a place where all people — regardless of who they are, where they come from or who they love — can feel at home.

Matt Comer

Matt Comer previously served as editor from October 2007 through August 2015 and as a staff writer afterward in 2016.

11 replies on “Charlotte St. Patrick’s Parade organizers have yet to learn: ‘Exclusion is not an Irish thing’”

  1. I feel that if it is an organizations parade they can screen their participants in a way that they deem appropriate. No, I am not supporting their decision to screen and censor LGBTQ identifiers or rainbow flags out of their parade and bios. Nor am I arguing that this doesn’t reinforce discriminatory practices in this or other similar parades.

    However, before we are so quick to judge and condemn the organizers of this parade I think we should question whether this is just a knee-jerk reaction? For all our talk of inclusiveness and equality would we allow a respectful but determinedly anti-gay group walk in our Pride parade? They don’t support the reason for this parade but if they abide by our parade guidelines and if they have paid the appropriate fees, should we allow them to walk despite them being the opposite of what our community is looking for? Or in this case would we censor their message and write policies dictating that, as this event is a celebration of the LGBTQ community and all of its diversity, the parade entrants should be supportive and representative of that cause. Maybe this is what the St Patrick’s Day Parade committee is trying to focus on, a parade that is entirely representative and supportive of its cause?

    As I said, I do not support the policies as written by the parade organizers, however I think we should be able to see that these policies were not intended to discriminate. they were and are intended to ensure that the parade and its participants are there for the right reasons, to celebrate Ireland and shared Irish culture and heritage.

    1. Milne,

      Your comment contains some valid points, but misses the issue at hand completely. Your examples are not comparable. The issue at hand is not about the St. Patrick’s Day Parade’s inclusion of an anti-Irish group (most similar to your example of an LGBT Pride parade’s inclusion of an anti-LGBT group). The issue at hand is about diverse people — including LGBT people — who share a commonality coming together for the St. Patrick’s Day Parade, which does not fully include and affirm LGBT Irish people or LGBT people of Irish descent.

      Matt Comer, editor

      1. “To separate one identity from the other is impossible.”

        What about some devout Irish-Catholics, who may see their Catholic faith as being as integral to their personal identity as their Irish heritage? Should they be allowed to proselytize, or to carry the Christian flag, religious signage, or more specific social things, such as anti-abortion signs with picture of dead babies?

        Personally, as a lesbian, I feel no real attachment to the rainbow flag. Yes, being gay is a part of who I am, but only one part. As a member of the Charlotte Pride Band, I would happily march in the parade (if I were in the country right now). Because that also celebrates other parts of my identity — the part that is a musician, the part that is a member of a great organization, and the part that is a Charlottean.

        Just my thoughts. Obviously this is a sensitive issue for many people, with many ways of viewing it.

          1. No, but all the parts of me support reaching out to all the different communities that make up Charlotte, all the people — Irish or not, gay or straight, families with kids, college students, etc — who will attend the St Patrick’s Day parade. They’ll attend not because proceeds go to an anti-LGBT group, but simply because parades are fun! They’ll see the pride band marching, and that’ll be great because bands are fun! They might think about the fact that the band is LGBT and ally, or they might not. But they’ll get to see a group of gay (and gay-friendly straight) people in a totally normal, fun, engaging, and non-threatening situation, and that is NEVER a bad thing for any part of us, gay or otherwise.

          2. Also, I’m not saying that I’m a big ol’ Knights of Columbus fan, or whatever. They do some lovely charitable work, and they support some bigoted discriminatory organizations. I don’t agree with a LOT of what they stand for. They, and the Catholic church, don’t agree with a lot of what I stand for. They’re not perfect, and neither am I.

            I guess I’m just saying that the LGBT community shouldn’t just take our toys and go home, simply because one of the kids at the playground is a dick.

  2. Matt:

    Your insight is correct from a diversity standpoint. I also find it disturbing that the CEO of the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority, Thomas Murray, would Grand Marshal such a parade that excluded the voice of our LGBT Community. He represents an organization that interweaves through so many other organizations, including commerce. Inclusion is an initiative that had become increasingly more important from the larger groups and seats at the table that make decisions that effect us all. To Grand Marshal such an event states alignment with that groups mission and overall screening criteria. Should the St. Patty’s day parade be a political event? Do we exclude people in the LGBT community from expressing the pride not only in their heritage, but also in their LGBT identification? Charlotte is a progressive city, but it seems we have a long way to go. Thank you for bringing this to our attention.

    1. I suggest we call Tom and let him know how we feel. Perhaps he will share our opinions and concerns with the parade organizers. I am hoping he is all in favor of inclusion for everyone.

  3. The “sure we are fine with gay people as long as they remain in the closet” or as long as we can keep them in the closet-is not about being accepting: it is called bigotry. Bigotry and anti-gay hate are taught in families, schools, churches and all types of instutions. Standing up to opression, using our words to identify ourselves as LGBT individuals is an Irish value that I cherish and flaunt in the face of the backward yahoos that organize parades pretending to celebrate Irishness.

  4. The issue at hand is indeed so very simple. There are LGBT Irish people who want to or will march in the St. Patrick’s Day parade. LGBT folk have a long history in the Irish culture and tradition. Roger Casement, one of the leaders(if not the leader)of the Easter Uprising of 1916 was a member of the LGBT community. Irish poets, authors, entertainers, leaders, clergy and citizens have included a long list of LGBT people. We support celebrating St. Patrick’s Day. By the way last time I checked you didn’t even have to be Irish to participate in the parade. There is nothing wrong with a rainbow flag-hardly a political symbol-or the use of the identifier LGBT. They as much a part of Irish culture and heritage as anything else. As a proud member of the Irish American community, Irish fraternal groups, Irish political groups(Irish American Democrats), as well as a proud member of the LGBT community and many LGBT organizations I think that the Irish and “G” in me gets riled up when I see any attempt at exclusion. The Irish and LGBT communities have a long history of fighting oppression, bigotry, discrimination and hatred. Both groups have fought long and hard to overturn wrong and to set the record straight regarding our own identities. I have very high hopes that the parade organizers will have no problems next year with anything involving a rainbow flag or LGBT in a bio.

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